BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops exchanged fire with rebels in the contested northern city of Aleppo on Thursday in a renewed bout of fighting that could further mar peace talks underway in Geneva while the Islamic State group attacked rebel-held areas in the country’s north, forcing thousands to flee toward the border with Turkey.
The renewed fighting underscores the fragility of the cease-fire that has largely held for several weeks despite deep differences between government and opposition representatives in U.N.-brokered peace talks. Those negotiations resumed Wednesday in Geneva, with U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura meeting Syrian opposition representatives.
Government representatives are expected to join the talks on Friday. The two sides have yet to negotiate directly, with de Mistura instead shuttling between the camps. The most obvious public difference between the two sides revolves around the fate of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Opposition representatives have insisted that Assad be removed from power as part of any peace deal, while government officials have declared Assad to be a red line.
During the fresh IS offensive on rival insurgent groups, the extremists captured at least one village Thursday before being forced to retreat from several areas after a counteroffensive and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition, activists said.
Government warplanes, helicopter gunships and artillery were bombarding rebel-held parts of the city and its suburbs, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Aleppo-based activist Bahaa al-Halaby.
The pro-government Addounia TV said one person was killed and five people were wounded by mortar rounds fired by insurgents into the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud district of the city.
The fighting came a day after Syrians in government-held parts of the country voted for a new parliament — balloting that the opposition has dismissed as a sham and that could further undermine the peace talks.
The Local Coordination Committees, another opposition monitoring group, said two Syrian army tanks were destroyed in the Handarat area, just north of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and former commercial center.
Al-Manar TV reported that Syrian troops captured the northern parts of Handarat. Al-Manar is run by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, which is fighting alongside Assad’s forces
Aleppo has seen sporadic clashes despite a U.S.-Russia-engineered truce that went into effect in late February. Government forces and their allies have rebel-held parts of Aleppo almost surrounded from all sides, except for a corridor from the northwestern edge of the city.
“Areas close to the front lines are tense,” said al-Halaby, the activist, speaking via Skype as explosions were heard in the background. He said several shells are falling every minute on the city and its suburbs.
The Observatory and the LCC reported violence in other parts of the country, including the central province of Homs and the northwestern region of Idlib.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-led coalition struck areas controlled by the Islamic State group near Syria’s border with Turkey, according to a Turkish news agency. The militant IS group and al-Qaida’s Syria branch, known as the Nusra Front, are not part of the cease-fire in Syria.
Coalition jets struck Islamic State militants in the villages of Souran, Hawar Kilis and Kafra, reported the private Dogan news agency. The report said smoke rose from the strikes and that sounds of explosion and gunfire were heard from across the border.
The Observatory also reported the airstrikes, saying they came amid clashes between IS fighters and rival groups in the area. It said IS fighters captured on Thursday the village of Hawar Kilis and the area around it.
Amer Hassan, an opposition activist based in the northern town of Azaz said the attack began when IS sleeper cells triggered clashes in Hawar Kilis before a large force of IS fighters stormed the village. The Observatory said at least 10 IS fighters were killed in the clashes and the airstrikes.
An international aid group said thousands of people have fled the IS offensive toward the border with Turkey saying they are massing near the border crossing point of Bab al-Salameh.
Frank McManus, Turkey Country Director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement: “We are seeing thousands of people arrive at the border, and more than a thousand families supported by the IRC at a displacement camp in Aleppo province have fled to Azaz and nearby villages.”
“The IRC will be responding by providing clean water to as many of the new arrivals as possible,” he said.
The Observatory, LCC and anti-IS group Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently, said warplanes believed to be Russian carried out several airstrikes Thursday on the northern city of Raqqa, the de-facto capital of the Islamic caliphate declared by IS in 2014 in areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
The villages in northern Syria lie across the border from the Turkish town of Kilis, which has been the scene of near-daily rocket attacks and shelling from IS-controlled territory in Syria. One person was killed and several people were wounded from such rocket fire on Wednesday.
Also Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin — one pf President Bashar Assad’s staunchest allies — said Moscow has shored up the Syrian army to the point where it can conduct offensive operations largely on its own following a Russian military drawdown.
As an illustration of the Syrian army’s success, Putin, who spoke in a marathon televised call-in show, said that after Russia withdrew some warplanes from Syria, the Syrian army was able to recapture the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group.
Putin also expressed hope that the truce will help the peace talks in Geneva and pave the way for a new constitution and an early election.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.